In my work coaching executive directors, this is the single most common question we explore: How do I fit in everything that needs to be done? Over the years I have discovered that there really isn’t a single magic bullet. However, the EDs that I see who are the calmest, most collected and seem to make great progress have two things in common.

First, they work hard on what’s in their control while accepting that some influences will always be outside of their control. One ED has a hand lettered sign on her wall that says: “When I die, my in basket won’t be empty.” This savvy ED recognizes that it isn’t practical or probable to assume that there will come a time when everything that ‘should’ be done will be done. She works hard at trying to tell the difference between the ‘shoulds’ and the ‘musts’ and then lets the ‘shoulds’ go to the B list side of the to do list without guilt.

When I die quote - smallThe second thing that the EDs who make good progress do well is to work with their board of directors to specify some jointly defined priorities for their work. The starting point for that conversation is usually a review of the job description to ensure that it is relevant and realistic. The second place to look for some clarity is the organization’s strategic plan or annual goals. In order to be successful, these EDs understand that they need to know where to focus their talents and time to make the goals a reality and to keep their boards satisfied with their efforts.

The objective here is not to create a list with twenty ‘priorities’ on it but to commit to the extra thought, debate and negotiation required to whittle that list down to the three to five issues that are absolutely the most important. The other issues on the first list won’t go away; the ED can just set them aside for now knowing that she won’t be criticized by her directors for doing so.

After the ED and the board have achieved clarity in defining the priorities for her work, it is tempting to think that the negotiation is done. However, like strategic planning, this is a continual process, not an end result. There is only one thing sure in today’s work environment and that is that things will change, usually at a speed that is dizzying. Boards and EDs need to have the strategic conversation on a regular basis to ensure that the ED isn’t working on priorities that are no longer relevant due to a shift in funding, changing stakeholder needs or evolving expectations of the board. A quarterly meeting to discuss priorities goes a long way to ensuring the ED knows where she needs to focus her efforts.